PRINT February 2003


To get a sense of New York–based artist Aleksandra Mir’s ongoing project HELLO, recall the final scene of Fellini’s 8 1⁄2. The film’s narrative unhinges in front of the camera, as all the characters walk onto an abandoned set and join hands in a long celebratory chain, every one of them connected: friends, enemies, passing acquaintances—figures large and small, having inhabited scene after scene or having appeared only for an instant—a moving frieze of players who made each other possible.

Exhibited in numerous incarnations since 2000, HELLO is so many of these chains. Mir collects thousands of family snapshots, paparazzi candids, film stills, pictures of artworks, and flyers and, for each installation, arranges a selection of them in a long row running along the gallery walls. Each image features two people posing together (alone or in a crowd), one of whom reappears in the image beside it, so that every person turns out to have been related—if only for the brief moment captured on film. Liza Minnelli air kisses at a party with Andy Warhol, who hangs out with Jack Nicholson, who shows up drunk with Harry Dean Stanton; eventually, Pelé plays guitar with Roberto Carlos (the Elvis of the Latin world). Some juxtapositions produce poetic leaps across genres: David Bowie stands alongside an actor costumed as Jesus, which leads to the reproduction of a painted biblical scene, which segues to an image of Rita Hayworth playing Salome (while Miss Piggy meets Harry Belafonte just a few paces down the line). Cultural spheres and historical periods are traversed as when, for example, a picture of Stalin marching with Trotsky leads to an intimate portrait of Diego Rivera with Frida Kahlo, and of Bill Cosby with Dorthaan Kirk, wife of ’60s avant-garde saxophonist Roland “Rahsaan” Kirk. (It’s a chain that later passes through Sylvester Stallone to reach Ronald Reagan, and through Duke Ellington to land on Richard Nixon.)

Mir’s project becomes most compelling when ordinary individuals are interspersed among icons, when the internationally famous meet the locally infamous or even the unknown. The abstract air of cultural forces—politics, economics, or otherwise—filters through the specific realities of commonplace scenes. Series begin to dilate and contract, seeming to breathe. Mir manipulates images, as have so many artists before her. But whereas a previous generation played with photographic imagery on the assumption that pictures were infinitely reproducible and manipulable—and therefore perpetually decontextualized—Mir recontextualizes them. She composes an epic of intimate moments—or, better, an anti-epic: The idea of a grand narrative gives way to smaller, more idiosyncratic ones, cells whose sequences continually reach out, each installation providing one more chapter in a minor literature written by the light of spectacular culture. Along these lines, HELLO has become a regional venture: For her first solo show in New York, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2001, the series included many faces known only o the native art circuit. For an installation at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco, pictures of beatniks led to those of Mexican muralists, Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, and Jarrett Mitchell, an artist in residence at CCAC.

These shimmering tensions between intimacy and abstraction, between local and global, between the person and the public realm, charge Mir’s works. Indeed, while HELLO pokes small holes into the media sphere, making space for individuality, the individual is as often lost in a sea of unique surfaces, seeming just one in a continuous field of reproduced faces. Mir’s most poignant work in this vein is Man with Artificial Heart, a small ink-jet-printed book she mailed to friends last year on Valentine’s Day. The volume told the story of Robert Tools, the first man to be kept alive, for five months, by a mechanical pump placed in his chest. The text was taken directly from a New York Times obituary describing the medical innovation and Tools’s eventual death; Mir broke the sentences into verse, so that journalistic distance accrued the cold poetry of Auden. The irony of her endeavor was obvious: On the most romantic of holidays, she sent a love letter about a man who literally lost his heart. And while she made a mass-media tale into something intimate, transposing wide-distribution newspaper script into a small edition of stanzas to be read by one person at a time, her subject, his life distilled as clinical facts, was a man whose story was eclipsed by history. Similar pressure points are suggested by Mir’s publication Living & Loving No. 1: The Biography of Donald Cappy, 2002, which comprises photographs of and interviews with a young man who started out in foster homes, drifted through the Marine Corps, and wound up a security guard at CCAC, where Mir met him. It’s as if one of the personages of HELLO has been delved into at length.

Mir’s larger projects are similarly melancholy takes on the public sphere. Invited to create an installation for a 1998 biennial in Norway, she produced a film festival: “Cinema for the Unemployed: Hollywood Disaster Movies 1970–1997.” Showing movies during the working week, she wryly took up the idea of unemployment as an economic dead spot within the booming late-’90s world economy (and, specifically, the almost fully employed Norway), looking to open up a few hours of unproductive, unprogrammed time at a moment when new information technologies allowed work to permeate the boundaries between office and home, public and private. If, as Smithson wrote, “To spend time in a movie house is to make a ‘hole’ in one’s life,” then Mir asked her audiences to make a hole in work in order to create time for life.

The hole, of course, would exist only for a morning or afternoon, giving “Cinema for the Unemployed” a certain vicarious dimension—a turn that surfaced on a more ambitious scale in Mir’s First Woman on the Moon, 1999. Aware that the world-historical event of the moon walk belonged, in a sense, only to the smallest fraction of culture—a few American males—she asked construction workers in Holland to help create a moonscape by the sea on the thirtieth anniversary of the lunar landing. The volunteers sculpted massive craters and gentle plateaus with bulldozers, invoking the brave era of Earth art while sculpting a simulacrum of the moon’s terrain. At sunset, Mir planted a single flag in the sand, concluding the mission. (She was not alone on the scene. “I’m the first black man on the moon,” one onlooker said, joining her in a crater. “I’m the first German,” said another.) Yet all of this activity took place on a beach—the site of childhood fantasies and adulthood reveries. In a sense, Mir created the largest sand castle ever, magnifying the universal desire to insert oneself into a grand narrative. Destined for failure, it was the stuff of embarrassing fantasy. Nevertheless, Mir was looking to another world in order to re-create, however momentarily, our own.

Tim Griffin is associate editor of Artforum.